From Brainerd to Brexit: Local Just Got Real

Posted on December 7, 2016 by Marian Salzman

Originally posted on The Huffington Post.

A few weeks ago, most people probably hadn’t heard of Michigan’s Macomb County, the small cluster of suburbs outside Detroit, much less considered that it could determine the fate of the world.

Yet when voters of these 27 cities, towns and villages cast their ballots for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton—by about 224,000 to 176,000—it was seen as the U.S. election’s bellwether, tipping the win to Trump. Statewide, he won by just 13,000 votes.

Later in the evening, outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it was Waukesha County—and within it, small towns like Delafield, Muskego and Vernon—that sealed the election for Trump. Around the world, the biggest media outlets and platforms used words like “stunning” and “shocking” to describe the upset.

But perhaps the most surprising thing to many was the undeniable power of the often overlooked and ignored residents of areas maligned as “flyover states.” Trump’s win was a fitting rebuke to champions and evangelists of globalization.

For the areas of the Rust Belt that have been decimated by job losses and outsourcing of manufacturing work, and infuriated by the bait-and-switch rhetoric of the information or sharing economy, it was also a rare opportunity to hit back hard.

It was the perfect testament to the evolution and power of local, and it is most likely a mere foreshadowing of what could come. Brands and businesses, take note.

For years, “local” was an adjective of warm and fuzzy marketing talk. Artisanal, handcrafted, homemade, mom-and-pop: local. Now it may mean something quite different. Don’t think folksy—think furious. Think frustrated. Think focused.

The residents of rural America are often as digitally connected and active as the residents of any major city in the country—and sometimes much more. But rather than representing that utopian vision of a local community drawing in the resources of a global economy, what is happening instead is that people are going online to vent, give testament to their economic reality and to forge alliances and draw parallels, from Brainerd to Brexit.

What has happened politically and socially in the U.S., the U.K. and around the world in 2016 is a kick in the teeth to one of the central tenets of lifestyle branding. For years, the unquestioned idea has been that if the brand is strong enough, and the emotional connections it inspires with stakeholders are deep and imaginative enough, it really doesn’t matter where a product is made.

But no long-form digital creativity—or sepia-toned Stronger Together campaign ad—is any match for a good job and economic security. You know who cares where a product is made? The people who used to make it.

More and more, smart marketers are recognizing that the more products can come from anywhere, the more important somewhere becomes. And it goes far beyond the classic German beer, English shoes and Italian suits. From Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to Paris, Texas, local communities are increasingly prizing what the French call terroir—a strong and distinctive sense of place.

What many brands are missing though is that while this is rooted in economics, it is far from transactional. The last thing local communities want is to be pandered to, much less be minimized into a descriptor and sold.

What local really means, now more than ever, is the imperative—in business, marketing and politics alike—to truly and deeply listen to what stakeholders most want and need. Marketing managers and the brands that depend on them for consumer engagement would be wise to consider listening as the easy way. This year, all around the world, we have seen just a glimmer of what the hard way will be.

Ironically, listening is a hallmark of Clinton’s leadership style: She famously took several “listening tours” around the United States and has been praised ceaselessly for her listening skills. But as Ezra Klein wrote in a critique of her earlier this year, “She doesn’t just listen to learn—she listens to flatter, to win allies.” In her search for common ground, Clinton may have ultimately listened to too many people, says Klein, and not always the right ones.

For those still willing to dismiss the election results as a fluke or an anomaly of a crazy election season, there is a very savvy communicator bunkered down in a penthouse at 725 5th Avenue who can tell you all about the unbelievable things that can happen when you start engaging and building at the local level.

[photo: creativecommons.org/Delaina Haslam]

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